Bad End


Ahah! The Forgotten is postponed to next week, it seems, due to the extensive Berlin coverage at The Notebook. Meanwhile…

Finally watched EL DORADO, which a lot of people portray as being a thoroughly inferior copy of Howard Hawks’ earlier Wayne western, RIO BRAVO (they share a writer, Leigh Brackett, but she kept warning Hawks that he was repeating himself — he didn’t care). I found it very enjoyable. Wayne is Wayne, a little older (visibly struggling to mount his horse, but bizarrely elegant crossing a room and kicking an opponent); Mitchum is Mitchum, which ought to make him a worthy substitute for Dean Martin, but the role is less well-crafted; James Caan is a huge improvement on Ricky Nelson. Arthur Hunnicutt subs for Walter Brennan, as he often did, most skillfully. Angie Dickinson is replaced by a couple of women characters who don’t get much to do — westerns didn’t seem to allow Hawks to push his heroines as far into one-of-the-boys territory as he could manage in other genres, although I bet h could have had fun with a JOHNNY GUITAR scenario if anyone had encouraged him. A LOT of fun.


“How will you get down?” Wayne is asked, when the injured gunfighter proposes riding into battle against impossible odds on a cart. “That’s easy, I’ll fall down.”

We also get strong support from Ed Asner, R.G. Armstrong and Christopher George, who could have had a very good career if confined to bad guys. He’s really not appealing as a hero, though it probably doesn’t help that the two leading man roles I’ve seen him in are THE DELTA FACTOR, a horrible Mickey Spillane thing that nearly did for director Tay Garnett, and CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD. Here, he’s an amoral professional, not viciously evil but willing to do anything for a buck: Wayne’s character treats him with wary respect (which is to say he kills him as soon as he gets a chance).

The very end is somewhat muffed, though, with the expected romance shoved offscreen and the laid-back conversational coda between Wayne and Mitchum ineffectually stretched across two scenes. They’re both nice scenes, but they’re kind of the same. Makes me wonder if Hawks were ever good at endings? He didn’t care about PLOT, famously. I slightly cringe at HIS GIRL FRIDAY’s fade-out (don’t want it to end on Rosalind Russell crying) though I love the rest of it as much as you’re supposed to, maybe more; RED RIVER, by the very nature of its story, has to cop out at the end to avoid becoming a tragedy; I can’t actually remember the ending of THE BIG SLEEP, though I expect it’s a clinch or at least a sly look between the leads — as Manny Farber points out, that movie creates so much goodwill in its first four sequences that it can coast along for the rest of its runtime without worrying about producing anything specially memorable.


So, a question for everyone: what are the classic movies you love which don’t quite work right at the end? And not for reasons of studio interference, but because the writers/directors got it wrong. I’ll kick things off with this one and MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. When it played on TV, its screenwriter, Sidney Buchman, would switch it off before the failed suicide bid Capra added for extra weep value. I think he’d have been far better having Jimmy Stewart wake up and learn he’s won — we may be able to figure out for ourselves that would happen, but wouldn’t it be more emotional to SEE it? Still find it extraordinary that the film ends with the hero unconscious.

Let’s hear from you!

31 Responses to “Bad End”

  1. Nightmare Alley!

  2. Oh let me think… happy ending, right? Tacked-on and unconvincing? There are so many of those I think I gave it a free pass. I’m sure the book’s ending is proper horrible.

  3. I’m a lot more used to defending endings.
    However the ending of “Vertigo” just makes me laugh. But then a lot of Vertigo makes me laugh.
    I remember Salman Rushdie hates the ending of The Wizard of Oz, because Oz is so clearly better than home, and indeed more like home.
    I’m going to say that “Die Hard” is a great movie, and that Reginald VelJohnson getting over his debilitating fear of shooting people dead at the end is the only bum note in it. But, like, a *really* bum note.
    And Birdman’s ending is terrible, a pretty firm confirmation that a lot of the artists involved were – no pun intended – winging in. Had the camera lingered an extra ten seconds on Emma Stone as she turned to the audience and pulled a face or something, it would have been far, far better.

  4. Are there ANY good endings that involve a suicide? There might be and I’ve just forgotten. But normally they drive me up the wall.

  5. Play it as it Lays has a great ending which *involves* suicide but is not the main character topping herself. Any ending offering that as a narrative solution is likely to be dangerous, dishonest and “romantic” in a bad way.

    Die Hard is a fantastic action movie that is ideologically worrying in a number of ways so the bum note struck me as fairly consistent, though it’s the most extreme form of that tendency.

    Yeah, I found the Vertigo nun to be a considerable stumbling block. My friend Robert actually remonstrated with her. “You heard voices? Of course you fucking heard voices, we were fucking SPEAKING.”

  6. It’s not a classic by any means but Frailty, directed by Bill Paxton, is really very good for most of it’s running time but has an ending so bad it ruins everything that came before. I’d say the same of Switchblade Romance too.

  7. The Vertigo nun dropped in from Black Narcissus.

    I find the ending of The Awful Truth rather weak in light of the magnificence that preceded it.

    EL Dorado was one of the first films I wrote about at length for a little mag (that barely got two issues out) called “Medium” which was published by filmmaker Jose Rodriguez-Soltero — a very curious figure in the New York avant-garde of the 1960’s. It was great to have the opportunity to deal in depth with a film that reviewers at the time were barely paying attention to.

  8. I actually rather like the ending of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, even though I probably shouldn’t. Yes, it’s corny and convenient that Claude Rains has his breakdown when he does, but Jimmy Stewart’s final defiant speech and collapse is such an electrifying moment that I’m prepared to forgive almost anything that happens afterward.

    Hitchcock came up with some weak, rushed-seeming endings–I still remember an article from Salon back in 1999 that described many of those endings a bit too harshly as “a dead cockroach at the bottom of a near-perfect cinematic sundae”–but the one that stands out for me is the ending of the “Man Who Knew Too Much” remake. A tense confrontation between Jimmy Stewart and Bernard Miles ends with Miles shooting himself with his own gun, and then comes thirty seconds of awkward comedy. “We had to pick up Hank!” Ugh. The ending of the 1934 “Man Who Knew Too Much”, though, is brutal and perfect.

  9. If Force Majeure had ended five minutes earlier, it would have topped my list as the best movie of 2014. Even with the ending, it’s still on the list – just not at the top.

    William Goldman, in his book The Big Picture, points to L.A. Confidential as a classic case of an otherwise great movie that is absolutely undermined by its phony Hollywood ending.

    Two others that always stick out for me are Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (utterly brilliant until they get to the parking lot) and Schindler’s List (the gravesite).

  10. Funnily enough, The Awful Truth was the one that sprang to mind for me, too, probably because I just saw it again. I’m not sure what David E. is referring too, but I find the rhythm of the final scene very awkward, and certainly not in tune with McCarey’s otherwise immaculate managing of the beats throughout the film (at times, I have a hard time believing that these are the same smart-alecky people onscreen). I really dislike the turn to the cuckoo clock, too — it’s a literally mechanical conclusion that’s a horrible contrast to the vibrancy of the characters.

  11. The cuckoo clock bit is just so odd that in a way I found it redeemed the clunky last scene a bit. That’s a movie that creates so much residual goodwill in its first two acts that they could just about show us anything and we’d still love it.

    LA Confidential demonstrates deftly just how little like a seventies film a “modern” film can be allowed to get. They wanted Chinatown, they end up with walking off into the sunset.

  12. I haven’t revisited VANILLA SKY since I was 19 & a new release, so I don’t know how I’d still feel, but at the time, I really liked it … up until it climactically explained What It All Meant. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so bitter about the way a movie ended. Provocations that I dislike are one thing; they can be productive! This just seemed pure capitulation.

  13. (I’ve also still never seen OPEN YOUR EYES, so i don’t know if the original ends in a similar manner.)

  14. Stewart’s filibuster, for which he gave himself a genuine sore throat, is indeed excellent.

    I *love* the sudden awkward comedy at the end of TMWKTM. It pulls off the trick of surprise abruptness that I never feel is so effective in Vertigo or The Birds. By contrast, I don’t really remember the climax itself — the Albert Hall scene is the real climax, and the reiteration of Que Sera Sera is the last good bit.

    Open Your Eyes has a creepy bit of ambiguity about What It All Means, which helps. I haven’t seen the remake. I didn’t love the original but the peculiarity of it was nice. More interesting as a mystery than as a solution, yes.

  15. I dislike the ending of The Uninvited, which basically finishes off with a dumb mother-in-law joke and a too-easy exorcism of the ghost (just throw a candlestick at it; why didn’t anyone think of that before?). I also dislike noir films that try to pull a happy ending out of the hat, such as Murder My Sweet, which is too damn cute, or Kiss of Death, which tries to pretend the whole film didn’t happen.

    That’s one of the things I like about Orson Welles; he’s utterly unsentimental about his finishes. The Stranger ends with a corking good line spoken by Edward G. Robinson, bound to keep Loretta Young sleepless the rest of her life; Lady from Shanghai ends with Welles abandoning a dying Hayworth (you can’t get more of a downer than that); and Touch of Evil ends not on the reunited couple but on Dietrich disappearing into darkness. Great stuff.

  16. Love COME AND SEE, dislike the cheapjack Adolf-in-reverse montage at the end.

  17. Oh, I quite like the Hitler reel… it makes a valid point, silently, that would be hard to achieve any other way.

    I don’t think Welles ever did a bad ending — no wonder Magnificent Ambersons rankled so much, and even that one is redeemed slightly by his end credits. Though even he felt compelled to soften The Trial slightly.

  18. My pet peeves are more mechanical: Endings that hinge on a disgraced or endangered hero / heroine suddenly cleared by a too-convenient exposition (overheard conversation, villain’s brag, fresh heroism with witnesses, etc.).

    The only cases I really embrace (as opposed to excuse, like “Miss Pettigrew Lives for the Day”) are both Keatons:

    “The Cameraman”, with its monkeyvision footage of Keaton saving the girl. It’s funny, it’s neatly set up, and we even get a hint that the girl regrets losing him before seeing the footage (too often fictional damsels in distress simply fall for their rescuers; a sort of Stockholm syndrome. Here, we get a reaction shot that implies the girl is NOT that happy doing what’s expected). Come-uppance and catharsis feel plausible and right.

    “Sherlock Junior”, where Keaton’s sleuthing makes him look like a thief. Then, while he’s fantasizing, the girl quickly clears his name with some obvious common sense. The comedy is that besides being a better detective, the seemingly passive famrgirl is not bowing to circumstances the way Keaton is.

    Another peeve: Scifi or fantasies that tell us something is impossible, then carve out a huge and clumsy loophole (usually an implausible “charm”, or a dopey clue the audience figured out almost instantly). And superheroes who aren’t quite strong enough to take down the superbaddies . . . until they grit their teeth and ARE strong enough.

  19. Science fiction is particularly prone to deux ex machina type finales, as seen most often in Russell T Davies’ Doctor Whos, where the TARDIS and the sonic screwdriver turn out to be able to do anything the plot requires of them.

  20. henryholland666 Says:

    DC, have you seen the original version of “The Big Sleep”, it’s the one always shown on Turner Classic Movies. It’s an example of classic movie studio tomfoolery: it was first shown to some US serviceman in January, 1945 but it got pushed back after the war ended in Europe so that Warners could get their stockpile of war films out. By the time it was ready to be released, Lauren Bacall had bombed in “Confidential Agent” and they panicked, adding more scenes of her with Bogie.

    The original version is much better and makes as much sense of the story as possible (Raymond Chandler couldn’t tell Howard Hawks who had killed the Sternwood chauffer for just one example). The original version is one of my very favorite movies.

  21. I’m guessing the reshoots must have been annoying to Hawks, who had a contract giving him a massive bonus (or profit points?) if the film could be made very fast and cheap. He planned it carefully in advance so as to use minimal sets and location work, did it on schedule — and then was forced to do extensive reshoots. Warners may have realized they could actually save money by robbing Hawks of his bonus while pepping up the film with added Bogie-Bacall sizzle…

  22. I remember the end of “Bandwagon” being disappointing, partly because I can’t remember the end of “Bandwagon”.

  23. For a long time I thought the psychiatrists ‘explanation’ at the end of “Psycho” was the Gold Standard for screwing up your movie at the worst possible moment, but the final minute or so alone with Norman and the last shot of the car being dragged out of the swamp redeem everything.

  24. La Faustin Says:

    ALICE ADAMS is frustrating because it hews so closely to the Tarkington novel, then shovels on the glop at the very end. The novel had a perfect closing image, too.

  25. Here’s one I don’t know how I feel about. Maybe it stinks, maybe it’s great. At the end of THE BIG CLOCK, Ray Milland and Maureen O’Sullivan clinch to a major key happy ending melody, but Charles Laughton has pretty much perfectly framed Milland for murder, and Laughton’s death plunge will do nothing to un-frame him. Quite the contrary. Unless the cops have been watching the movie, it must look to them like Milland has killed again. Shouldn’t there a Pixar-type post-credit shot of Milland being strapped into the electric chair?

  26. The end of the Bandwagon? Oof, difference of opinion. They literally sing you out of the theater! I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. Same with the Strawberry Blonde. Anytime there’s that nod to the joy of good candy, I’m there.

    Also, I’ve never seen the end of MSGtW, because I’m bawling like a child to the point that the screen is a glowing silver blur. Therefore, I cannot comment on it. I don’t know who I’m crying for, or in what direction.

  27. Also, the end of Treasure of Sierra Madre drives me up a wall. Where one guy decides to go back to village to play white savior and the other guy decides to just take a dead guy’s wife, and that’s the big moral lesson? Feh.

  28. I hope we never see another ending where female characters who are a little too unconventional/courageous for a male writer/director to envisage a future for them are killed off. Think THELMA AND LOUISE and Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN, for example. It’s a failure of imagination that I find infuriating.

  29. Finally reading Five Cam Back, and Mark Harris retells the story of Woman of the Year gaining its antifeminist happy ending in which career woman Katherine Hepburn is humiliated for her lack of knowledge in the kitchen. Test audiences demanded it. The irony being that by the time it opened, the war was on and audiences found her social engagement more commendable than Spencer Tracy’s selfishness. So George Stevens was victim of a couple of Hollywood endings, Alice Addams and this one.

    Treasure of the Sierra Madre has the cosmic laughter, though, so I’m not bothered. Any time Huston ends on laughter I’m OK with it.

    A common error is movies which underestimate how interested we are in a female character and so fail to do right by her. It tells us a lot about the filmmakers’ — and society’s — values.

  30. Randy Cook Says:

    The laughter at the end of TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE is cosmic and right-minded, but I’m afraid the playing of it seemed a little forced, especially jarring because Huston père was so damn good up till then (if you forgive his look at the camera). The final image, Dobbs’ worthless sack of gold dust, stuck on the cactus, was such a succinct and perfect summation: Howard and Curtain live on to pursue human goals, while Dobbs’ lust for material gains has proved not only futile but fatal.

  31. It’s another film that’s so compelling for so long that the ending can only be a very minor disappointment. And all the right stuff HAPPENS…

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